It was the end of the second year of the German occupation.
The Skalat Ghetto was again made smaller and once more we were forced to move. The remaining Jews were now confined to a few narrow back streets of our town and this time the Rosenblats took us in. We shared two small rooms and a kitchen with several families. The house was crowded and each family confined itself to a bed.. There we slept, ate, agonized over our inability to find a hiding place, and spent anxious hours awaiting inevitable death. The nights terrified us and everyone with whom we shared the house was exhausted and on edge from tension and lack of sleep. Another day had started without an 'action,' nevertheless we knew that our days in the Skalat Ghetto were coming to an end.
Someone opened the door and we saw Jews appearing in the street. Was it safe after all we wondered? Inside the house people moved about mechanically, but our minds were alert to the danger all around us. No one spoke very much and even the complaints, which at times would arise from living; together in tight quarters, had stopped. About our common obsession of finding a hiding place, we were all secretive.
We spent the night awake and as had been our habit for a long time now, we kept our clothes on. As I was getting up, I felt over-dressed and uncomfortable. My mother, sitting on the edge of a narrow bed, which she shared with me and my five year old sister, stood up. She placed a black shawl on her shoulders and went outside. Assured that the streets were safe, she returned, took my sister and me by the hands, and without saying a word, led us out of the house.
Outside, some Jews were returning to the ghetto from a night spent on the safe Aryan side. We did not speak to them nor did they make any inquiries. Because it was safer, we were walking through back streets and alleys, staying close to the doorways wherever possible, in case of a sudden need to hide. Since the Skalat Ghetto had no physical barriers, no one stopped us as we made our way outside the designated ghetto section.
Making sure that no one could hear us, my mother started to speak. She explained that we were going to a Gentile family to whom she had given all our remaining possessions and who, in turn, had promised to hide us when the time came. The family lived off the marketplace in a formerly Jewish-owned house and very near our own home. I knew every corner of that house, where, before the German occupation, I used to play with my cousins and friends. It was getting late in the morning. As we passed the Prayer House where our family worshipped, my mother recalled how, before the war, on holiday mornings such as this, my father, grandfather, uncles and cousins would already be gathered here for prayers. She was quickly jolted out of her reminiscences by the appearance, here and there, of local Gentiles, who knew us. It was, therefore, becoming dangerous for us to be on those streets.
We were approaching the house. Suddenly we heard awful shouts and cries. The terrifying sounds of shooting coming from the direction of the ghetto which we had just left convinced us that an 'action,' had started. Since all previous 'actions,' in Skalat had started at dawn, this sudden, unexpected attack caught us off guard. In the grip of panic, we became dazed, and didn't know which way to turn. Within moments we heard shots coming from many directions and heard the Germans and the Ukrainian policemen, accompanied by barking dogs, running down the narrow streets and alleys. Bellowing commands and insults, they were inflicting merciless blows on the trapped Jews. The round-up was taking place with a deliberate frenzy: it was fast, loud and full of painful screams and death. People everywhere were running and we too started to run as fast as we could. We reached the street and saw the house where we would be saved! We ran faster and finally made it to the Gentile family.
As we pushed our way inside, we found ourselves standing in front of a man, his wife, and two small children. The man stared at us in disbelief and told his wife to take the children to the back room.
He then turned to my mother and in a loud and angry voice shouted What are you doing here? You must get out immediately!
We can't leave, an 'action' has started and you promised to hide us my mother said. I have no hiding place and I want you out of here, right now! He started to push us out of the room as my mother continued to plead.
Have mercy on my children, the streets are full of Germans she sobbed and if we go out, we'll be killed!
The man's wife returned and, confronting her husband, demanded that he throw us out immediately. In the ensuing commotion, my mother turned her head quickly and looked at me. On her face I caught a glimpse of unspeakable desperation. She was afraid to speak, but her gaze was totally fixed on me. With all the strength left in her she wanted to say something, but her lips remained closed. Suddenly she opened her eyes wide and shot me a glance wild with urgency. Then, with an instant wink she willed me to move. She was telling me to get away now, to run, to save myself! As I stepped back, my mother turned from me and I never saw her face again.
I moved back into a small vestibule, through which only moments before we had entered the man's house. There were several doors and, since I knew the house well, I opened the one leading to a pantry. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed some firewood on the floor and sacks half-filled with grain and other items. In the corner of the ceiling was an opening leading to the attic. Although there was no ladder and the ceiling was high, I was drawn to the attic with indescribable willpower. With a sudden strength and agility far beyond my years and expectations, I lifted a heavy sack and placed it on top of another one. Then, I climbed on top of the sack and stepped from it onto a door handle. Digging my nails into the wooden door, I grabbed a hinge and hoisted myself up onto the attic. I could not believe it! I had just managed to climb up a straight wall, but this was no time to stop and reflect.
Once in the attic, the only thought racing through my mind was to hide quickly. I took in my surroundings with a glance. The attic was dusty, the floor covered with straw, but otherwise it was empty and there was no place to hide. I thought of climbing out and clinging to the roof, but I feared that I would be spotted from the street. I also thought of breaking through the wooden partition of a neighbor's attic in hope of finding a hiding place there, but I knew that to do so would take too long and would be dangerously noisy. Other ideas rushed through my mind while precious minutes ticked away. I was desperate and so frightened that my legs became shaky and I sank to the floor.
It was incredible, for as soon as I sat down, my hiding place stared me in the face. In a broken spot of the attic floor, I noticed a small space between two beams and I knew that somehow I had to get in there. From years of surviving 'actions,' in the ghetto, I also knew the importance of not leaving a trace behind me. I, therefore, got up quickly, removed all my excess clothing, folded it into a bundle and pushed it through a small trap door inside a chimney. Then, feet first, I slid on my stomach into the narrow space disturbing the straw, in order not to leave a trail and covering the opening by pulling down some straw. In front of my face I left a tiny slit for air and vision. I was finally hidden.
As I lay, I became aware once again of the horror taking place outside. My mind drifted back to my mother and sister. Did the man have pity? Did he hide them? The frightening sounds outside were now on the street where I was hidden and the Germans were running up and down in front of the house.
Within ten or fifteen minutes, I heard the front door burst open and Germans accompanied by a barking dog were shouting Juden raus! They were searching the house. Now they were coming up to the attic and once again that morning I was overwhelmed by an indescribable fear. I started to shake uncontrollably and had to push my tongue between my lips to stop the noise of my chattering teeth. The Germans were in the attic. Through the opening in the straw, I could see the bottoms of the soldiers' boots and the legs of the dog. I held my breath as they passed only inches from my face. Then I saw the beam of
a flashlight. In minutes the search was over and the Germans left. My brush with death was over, but I have lived with it all my life.
With my head turned to one side and unable to move, I lay for hours, squeezed between two beams. I felt no hunger, or thirst, only pain from the twisted position of my neck and head. I drifted into merciful sleep, only to awaken frightened and angry for allowing myself to slip away from vigilance. I was all alone and again fear assaulted me. What should I do, I thought? Who will help me? Words of my mother's inordinate effort to save me came back to me.
Leave me and try to save yourself, she would say over and over again when we were in the ghetto. You must go far away from Skalat she warned, so no one would recognize you. Forget that you're Jewish you are small, you don't need papers and you have a chance to survive as a peasant girl. At such times, tears would well up, as I begged her not to make me leave her. Lying alone in the dark attic I cried silently because I still did not know where to go nor how to save myself.
As daylight waned, the streets became quiet and then it got pitch-dark. I fell asleep again and when I woke up, I was aware that I was wet. I could no longer sleep. Dawn was breaking. How long was I hiding? I lost track of time.
Early in the morning I heard someone coming up onto the attic. It was the man and he was alone. He was walking around and calling on whoever was there to come out. I had no choice. Weak and stiff, I crawled out of the hole. I had wet his ceiling he said and therefore he knew that someone was there. When he saw me he could not believe that I was in his house while the Germans were searching it. He demanded that I leave his house immediately. Is the 'action' over? Is it safe to go back to the ghetto? I asked. And where are my mother and sister? He told me that there were no more Jews left in Skalat and that my mother and sister had been killed. Where was I to go then? He didn't care. I begged him to let me stay until evening because if I were to go out in the daytime, I said I would be immediately recognized and shot. They might question where I had hidden and then both of us would be in peril, I reasoned. He agreed reluctantly and as he left, he warned that he would be back as soon as it got dark. When the man left, I retrieved my clothing from the chimney and remained in the open attic for the rest of the day.
It was exactly twenty-four hours earlier on June the 9th 1943 on the second day of Shavuot that the last 'action' in Skalat took place and the town was declared Judenfrei. On that day the Jewish community which existed there for hundreds of years came to an end, and with it the lives of my mother, Necha Rosenzweig-Goldberg, nee' Rubin, and my sister, Ginia Goldberg. My stepfather, Jacob Goldberg, was confined to the Skalat Camp and was later burned alive in the Kamionka Camp. That evening as I walked out into the unsafe streets of my native town, I was twelve years old, all alone and in mortal danger. Little did I know what was yet in store for me in the months ahead during my struggle to survive.
It is fifty years since those awful days of the round-up of Jews in Skalat, during the Wild Action of October 21-22, 1942.
Over 3,000 Jews - young, old, men, women and children were dragged from their homes and driven to the assembly point of the main synagogue of our town. Among them were my parents, my two sisters and I.
Though fifty years have passed, I still have before my eyes the horrible scene in the synagogue where people stood weeping and children were screaming. A man stood wrapped in a prayer shawl, praying loudly and hoping that God will hear and help. After twelve hours in the synagogue, the Germans and Ukrainian police forced us to walk toward the railroad station. Along the way the local population were lining the streets and enjoying the spectacle of Jews being driven to their death.
At the station the train was waiting for us. All the windows in the cars were boarded up, to insure that no one would escape. With kicks and blows of rifle butts, people were driven at a running pace into the cars and then the doors were shut. In the cars we were pressed together like sardines, without water and without any sanitary facilities.
I knew that we were all going to die. Since we had nothing to lose, I and a few other young men decided to escape. We managed to pry open a board in the window and I told my parents that I was going to jump from the train. My mother told me that if I were to survive the slaughter, I should go to Palestine, and there join my sister Rivka.
After taking leave of my family, I was helped by others to slide through the opening in the window. I jumped from the running train and fell near the track. Immediately the Ukrainian train guards began to shoot. The bullets were falling all around me as the train was moving away, but I was not hit. Noticing a wooded area nearby, I started to run in that direction in hope of finding shelter there.
It was a chilly, fall day and it was raining. When I reached the wooded area, I was wet, very cold and so exhausted that I fell asleep. In a dream my grandfather appeared before me draped in a talis (prayer shawl) and a kitel (white robe), as if he were dressed for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). In his hand he held a sword and he ordered me to follow him. When I awakened, I started to walk. After a while I arrived at an intersection where the road branched out in several directions. I stood there confused and not knowing which way to proceed. Then the shadow of my grandfather appeared and pointed the way. That was how I arrived in Skalat, from where we had departed only hours before.
I realize that it is hard to believe what I have just related, therefore, I have never told it to anyone, until now. When I arrived back in my town, people looked at me as if I were resurrected from the dead. After a short time, I was interred in the Skalat Camp and there I joined the brigade which worked in the rock quarry of Nowosiolka. When the situation in camp became dangerous, I decided to escape. I left the camp at night and managed to reach the forest near Ostra Mogila. There I found a group of Jews from Skalat. Among them were the Koflers, Weinberg and others. We hid in the forests until we were liberated by the Russians in 1944.
After the liberation, I returned to Skalat and joined the Soviet Army. In 1945, at the end of the war, I was demobilized. Then I traveled to Germany, Belgium, France, and in 1946 I arrived in Israel, which at that time was still under the control of the British Mandate.
In July of 1943, the well-known partisan group under the command of General Kolpak was surrounded and crushed in the vicinity of Delatyn in the Carpathian Mountains.
Under the orders of the Soviet command, their remnants, divided into small units, began to track back to their initial bases deep in Russia. By the end of July, several of these partisans stopped by in the Ostra Mogila Forest. They participated with us in the raid on an estate in the village of Torowka. Afterward, the Germans organized a roundup in the forest. Toward evening, we heard the sound of a trumpet and immediately realized that we were surrounded. We found ourselves in a young, but dense wood which gave us good protection. The Koflers, a husband and wife, two partisans and I hid behind a boulder which protected us from the bullets, at least from one direction. We were ambushed, fun of fear, and we saw death before our eyes. Our only wish was not to be caught alive but to die from the bullets.
Voices of the Germans calling to one another became clearer and clearer. Suddenly, a hatless SS officer, with his revolver in hand, ran behind us but did not notice us. In front of us, two silhouettes of policemen appeared. The partisans loaded their guns. We waited, tense and fearful, aware of the fact that these were the last moments of our lives. The two policemen, to see better through the dense trees, strained their heads through the growth. Both partisans shot at them and we saw the policemen fall to the ground. Wild shooting erupted all around us. But after a while, the shooting stopped. It became dark and quiet. We were sure that the Germans would put guards around this part of the forest and in the morning would begin the roundup again. Trying to save our lives, we decided to run to another part of the forest. When it became completely dark and quiet, we formed a single-file to get to the road. To avoid the crackling of the dry leaves and branches, each step that we took had to be careful and well executed. It seemed like an eternity before we reached the road across from where the taller trees grew. We did not see or hear anyone. One behind another, we ran into the older forest.
It turned out that the Germans caught only one of us, Dolek Tennenbaum, while they themselves suffered two casualties - one killed and one wounded. They returned to Skalat the same day. Next day, they publicly hanged Dolek and buried the dead policeman.
I, Bernard (Nadzio) Weinsaft, lived through the three years of German occupation with a lot of terrifying incidents occurring during that period. But there were two particular episodes that stand out, where my life hung in the balance, and these are deeply etched in my memory.
The first incident occurred right after the Germans entered our little town of Skalat. Jewish refugees from Germany had told us that front-line soldiers resented the Jews for coming out of their homes to watch the soldiers entering a town. My mother, father and I, therefore, locked all the doors and barricaded ourselves in the house.
The Germans marched into town on Friday, July 4th, at night. We spent the whole day of Saturday, July 5th, peeking out of the windows. We saw our Gentile neighbors running amok through the streets and trying to break into the Jewish homes. They tried to break into our house but did not succeed. Perhaps they looked for easier prey.
We weren't as lucky the next day, Sunday, July 6th. This time, the German soldiers were roaming the streets, led by our Gentile neighbors who were pointing out the Jewish homes. The Germans were more vicious. They broke through our front door as we made our way down to the cellar from an entrance within the house.
The safety in our cellar didn't last very long. We heard the Germans threaten to lob grenades down the cellar unless we came out. My parents decided to come out the front entrance from the cellar, where we were met by German soldiers. My father was taken away to work and my mother was left alone. In all that confusion, I darted away, soldiers in pursuit. I zigzagged through the narrow streets, and escaped to my grandparents' house, where I ran down to their cellar and hid in a chicken cage.
I spent the whole day in hiding, and the only thing which saved me was the fact that the entrance to the cellar was flooded, and the German soldiers did not wish to get their boots wet. In the evening, I came out of my hiding place. On this occasion my father was fortunate to be released by the soldiers. A lot of others were not as fortunate. I spent the next day in the cellar.
Once the front-line soldiers left, we settled in for the long three years of occupation that followed.
It had been rumored that there was going to be an 'action' in the Skalat Camp. Everybody expected it. Not having anywhere to go, I remained in the camp, but I was up the whole night. I was restless and frightened, and had a strange feeling that if I could only hide out for one more day, I would somehow be able to go on for a while longer.
At dawn on June 30, 1943, the Jewish policemen were away from their posts, and I was able to walk out of the camp. I walked over to a Gentile's house, lay down in the backyard, and overcome with exhaustion, fell asleep. I was awakened by the Ukrainian police and taken back to the camp. There, I found other Jews sitting on the ground. I was searched, told to sit and keep my arms above my head. Later, we were loaded onto flat trucks that had very low sides. We were ordered to lie down on our backs and other people were piled on top of us. This was probably done to prevent people from escaping.
We were taken to pre-dug graves outside of our town. While we were walking from the road to the graves, one of the German officers decided to pick twenty young men and bring them to the camp so as to lure the remaining Jews back to camp for a final 'action' at a later date. I was one of the lucky ones who was picked and given a new lease on life. A few weeks later, the Russian partisans appeared in Skalat. I joined them to fight the Germans, and that's how I survived.
The events which I am about to relate took place on June 30, 1943 during the First Camp Action in Skalat.
Early in the morning, the Germans came and surrounded our camp. Since we were warned that an 'action' was coming, many inmates decided to run away. Among those who ran were my two sisters, Nusia and Yochevet, who were kept in the women's section of the camp. We agreed among ourselves that if we were separated, we would meet near the Bath section of our town. There, in the fields, tall hemp grew and, therefore, the area provided a place to hide. I tried to persuade my father to leave the camp with me, but he was despondent over the loss of my mother and the rest of the family and was reluctant to leave. After some more persuasion he agreed to run away, but as we were walking out of the building, he remembered that he had left his talis and tefilin (prayer shawl and phylacteries) behind. He went back to get them.
Suddenly, I heard the Germans near the building and it was too late to leave. We were trapped! I too retreated inside the building and looked for a place to hide. There were many bunks inside the building, and I quickly crawled in between them. In the spot where I found myself, I noticed another Jew, Yidel Beireshky, who was also hiding there. Within a short period of time we were discovered and dragged out by the Germans. They ordered us to join the other Jews sitting in the camp square, to undress to the waist and to turn in our belts.
The Germans walked around and ordered the people to surrender their rings, jewelry, .money, precious stones - anything of value. The baker, Hersz Katz, tore up his money because he didn't want the Germans to have it. For this action he was brutally beaten. Within half an hour my father was brought out from where he had hidden, and he too was stripped to the waist and joined the rest of us.
Shortly afterwards, some of the Jews were placed on trucks and then taken out of the camp to the prepared pits near the village of Nowosiolka, where they were shot. The trucks kept on returning for more Jews.
Suddenly a German by the name of Hoffman, who was in charge of the stone quarry near Nowosiolka, where I had worked, appeared on a motorcycle. Hoffman told the SS-man in charge of the 'action,' that he needed twenty strong, able, young Jews to go with him. Among them Hoffman picked me. Not wishing to leave my father alone, I was reluctant to go. My father told me that by going, perhaps there will be a chance for me to survive and would be a trace left of our family. We said our farewells and I joined the twenty men.
After a while the SS-man returned to look over the twenty picked Jews and spotting my emaciated, weak body among them (I had just gotten over typhus), he ordered me with a few whips back to the group of the doomed. When Hoffman saw me for the second time among the doomed Jews, he took me by the hand and brought me over once more to the group of twenty. Then Hoffman walked away and the SS-man saw me again among the twenty Jews and once more whipping me and heaping insults, ordered me to go back to the group of the doomed.
The counting of twenty able Jews having been completed, Hoffman spotted that I was not among them. Hoffman then confronted the SS-man, told him that I was one of his best workers at the quarry and that he wanted me. Annoyed and impatient, the SS-man finally waved his hand and said that if he wanted such a sick. Scheiss Jude (shitty Jew), he could have me! Once more I joined the twenty men. We were now twenty-one able-bodied Jews, who were granted life.
We survived, but only after we had witnessed the executions and then covered the graves of our parents, brothers and neighbors.
I survived this 'action' because the SS-men knew that according to the official count of the Jews in the Skalat Camp, not enough Jews had been caught. Let's leave these Jews working they said, we'll need them to bury the rest of them the next time. This was what I had heard on that day next to the just covered graves.
Outside of Skalat in the mass graves are the remains of my mother, Necha Rosenzweig-Goldberg (nee Rubin), and my sister, Ginia Goldberg. I saw the graves only once, in 1944, a few months after the liberation, when I, together with a group of Jews, went to say our farewells before leaving for the West.
Twenty five years later, during the height of the 'cold war,' my husband and I decided to visit our respective home towns once more. It was with great difficulty that we obtained permission to visit Skalat and my husband's town, Kozowa also located in the Tarnopol district.
When we finally arrived in Skalat accompanied by Russian intourist guides, who were also members of the police, the drastic change in the appearance of former Jewish sections of our town made it difficult to recognize what were once familiar houses and streets. I walked around the town with memories of the happiest and most painful years of my childhood.
An older peasant woman saw me and asked who I was. I told her my name and that my family owned a dry goods store before the war. She immediately told me that she knew my grandfather, Meyer Rosenzweig, quite well. She attached herself to us and accompanied us as we walked around the town. Along the way she also told me many other things.
After a while I started to walk up Panska Street towards the cemetery and mass graves. Don't go there, the woman warned quietly. I told her that I had to go, since these sites were the main purpose of my trip. Again, she tried to stop me. Why? I asked. She told me that the Jewish cemetery had been made into a soccer field. I also found out from her, to my horror, that there were no more mass graves to be seen. They had been leveled and plowed under to make the site blend into the surrounding fields.
Who did such a thing? I asked.
You know who, she answered cautiously. I knew that the local people had good reason to have the graves leveled. They were anxious to cover up their cooperation and culpability in the crimes which exterminated the Jews of Skalat.
And the authorities, didn't they do anything about it? I asked.
No, she whispered, no one cared! Besides, the soil there is good and they wanted it for planting.
The soil there is good! I almost screamed. At that moment it was as if the Holocaust was still with me. I was grief stricken and stunned. There seemed to be no hope, no end to evil, and no bottom to human baseness.
My husband and I were so shaken, that we stood silently unable to shed tears. Then we turned around and walked back to the marketplace.
In September of 1995 I visited my native town for the second time in half a century. Unlike twenty five years earlier, when my husband and I first visited Skalat, now we were able to walk around unescorted and unrestricted by 'cold war' limitations.
As we approached the town, I recognized in the distance the familiar landmark of Skalat; its four cone-shaped, red-tiled roofs of the seventeenth century towers. They were the main site of the first pogrom massacre by the Germans and the Ukrainian collaborators, and brought back memories of the tragedy which took place there.
On first impression, the town seemed empty. The older generation, I was told, had passed on, the Poles had left for Poland and of those who had remained, only one third were natives. No one spoke about the conspicuous void left by the slaughtered Jews. No one missed or regretted the absence of those who had played such a pivotal role in the commerce, the cultural life, and the general development of the town. Skalat looked devastated; a town of ramshackle houses and dilapidated buildings. The deliberate destruction and fifty years of neglect had taken a heavy toll. Some quarters, especially the former Jewish areas, still lay in rubble. Dug-up streets, crumbling buildings and razed Jewish homes made it difficult for me to establish a landmark and to reconstruct the neighborhood of my childhood. Here and there a few meager looking vegetable gardens could be seen in place of the demolished homes. Otherwise, no vendors, no buyers, no tailors, no cobblers, no tinsmiths, and no glaziers. Since most of them were Jews, they had all been killed and no one had taken their place. I walked along a ruined, silent landscape which was both a reminder and a lament for the snuffed out lives, never to return again. The town was without a trace of its former vitality.
I wondered, Did those who sowed the seeds of hate and those who committed the crimes, realize what future ruination they would bring to their native town? Was there some justice in what I was seeing? The crimes perpetrated here were so outrageous and my pain was so great, that I could find no solace, even in thoughts of retribution.
I went back to Skalat to make a record in words and photographs of the remaining traces of Jewish life there because I knew that none of these would last another fifty years. I also came to remember, and to mourn. I tried to recall what our lives were like in this town before the war and sought tangible traces of that life. I remembered with great vividness the upheaval which destroyed our world, and I was looking for evidence of that destruction. When my family together with the entire Jewish community perished in Skalat, we did not have a chance to mourn because the killing went on unabated, and we expected our turn to come soon. At that time, even the opportunity to grieve was denied us. I, a survivor, came to this place of suffering, therefore, not only as a personal, but a communal mourner.
I started my day's pilgrimage in the Mantiawa outskirts, entering the town by the road leading from Tarnopol to Skalat. My first stop was the building where the Skalat Camp was located. Just as I had fifty years ago, I found myself in front of a fence with a locked gate. This time, I entered the enclosure by permission from the factory manager rather than having to crawl underneath the barbed wire of a side fence. The old building which stood in front of me, had the same flight of stairs leading to the door through which inmates entered the camp. To the side, I saw the open yard where daily, pre-dawn roll calls were conducted. I remembered the piles of furniture and household items that had been brought here from the ghetto after Skalat was declared Judenfrei. These furnishings were hiding a small group of desperate Jews who were still clinging to life, and I was among them. Within a few days they were all rounded up and shot at dawn. Fortunately, I had managed to escape the night before this slaughter. A narrow, little
river still runs by the side of the former camp. Many of us had to jump across it both to enter and then to escape.
From here the road led to the area of the old fort, surrounded by the remnants of a stone wall and four tall towers. The grounds of the fort, once a place of green grass and tennis courts, the playground of the town's Polish upper crust, were now littered with debris where chickens and ducks roamed freely. In the center, stood a newly erected, huge statue, honoring Hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki. Stern and erect this Ukrainian national hero had been responsible for pogroms on Jews during another era. I thought it an apt place for him to be, overlooking the spot where the slaughter of the Jews of Skalat began, ushering in the Holocaust in our town and the surrounding regions.
The road outside the fort running along the wall and the remnants of a moat led to the place where the Polish Catholic Church used to be. This site, the market square, and the areas below were changed beyond recognition. On reaching the market, I saw on one side of the square a row of old, boarded-up former Jewish stores. On another side stood a two storied building with a balcony. As a child, I used to play there. Above the front door, peering through a layer of peeling paint, I could clearly make out the black letters BERN.....the beginning of the name of the former store owner, my uncle, Moses Bernstein. I walked over to the spot where our house had stood and memory released echoes of long ago.
Once, Skalat was a lively and busy little town. That liveliness had been reflected in the crowded, narrow streets, the hustle-bustle of the marketplace, the sounds emanating from cheders*, prayer houses, merchants and hawkers, and from the laughter and cries of children. This affirmation of life had transcended the poverty and even the wretchedness of a sizable portion of the Jewish population. Here people had worked hard and long, and when work was done, they had observed the day of rest and prayers scrupulously and joyfully.
The rhythm of life and the appearance of our town would change with the seasons. White, long winters were cold and slow; warm springs and summers were busy with planting and harvesting; and falls alternated between golden, hazy Indian summer days and gray, rainy ones leaving the streets full of mud and puddles. Around the market square had been small stores and in the center, open stalls. Each day, but especially on Tuesdays (market day), the stalls were filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, chickens and geese; which the farmers would bring into town to sell. Once a year, when the feast of St. Ann was celebrated, our provincial town teamed with people. Worshipers and celebrants, farmers and tradesmen, cattle dealers and thieves would gather here from the surrounding towns and villages. The market square would turn into a place of magic for us, the children. While our parents looked forward to a busy day of commerce and trade, the children would delight in the carousel rides, the circus, and the small zoo which was always set up here.
As I looked at the empty scene in front of me, I recalled that one would also encounter here, Skalat's share of idlers, the chronically unemployed, the beggars and the town idiots. Of the latter, two came to mind: Rosye myt di pek. Rose the bag lady, who always walked around with all her possessions tied around herself; and Ivan Bratrura, known in town as Mykolcye myt di glek (Nicholas with the bells). Nicholas, a truly mad, young fellow, bedecked in old medals, always rang pieces of tin and bells inviting the taunts of children and repelling them with a barrage of stones. Those that had been Jews, were killed No distinction was ever made between rich and poor, young and old, sane and mad.
I continued to walk around and found a cement rectangle in the middle of the market square. It was covering the former water pump, which I could see every day of my childhood from the front door of our house. Poor Jewish water carriers would eke out a living, carrying water from here to the neighborhood homes. Later, under this pump, Jews were tortured and drowned. From a hiding place in an
attic near the market, I remembered hearing the screams of the first victims during the pogrom as well as the cries of the last victims, also gathered here during the final 'action' in Skalat.
From the market I walked to the big synagogue. When we were there twenty five years earlier the building had been used as a tractor repair station. Then, there were still some traces left of the building's former use. Now it had been converted into a factory .The main sanctuary with its high ceiling was divided into two stories. The beautiful wall frescos were gone as well as the stained glass windows and any other trace indicating that this was once the main synagogue of Skalat. Walking through the vestibule I remembered when this house of worship was regularly used for study and prayers, and on the Sabbath and holidays for solemn, religious services. Mostly, however, I retained in my memory the river of the doomed which flowed through these doors. Among them were my relatives, neighbors and townsmen. This sanctuary was their last shelter, their final gathering place, and for these victims, in the end, it proved no sanctuary. From here there was no way out, no hope, and no escape.
When we left the synagogue, we walked along the road leading to the railroad station. Along this route the victims of the Wild Action also walked, never to return again. On route we passed more destroyed former Jewish neighborhoods. Only a few of the better houses in town were still standing. On a side street and up a narrow alley, stood the building, barely recognizable, where before the war the Torah study house (Talmud Torah) was located. During the German occupation it was used as the seat of the Judenrat. I shivered, remembering stories of deeds which Jews were forced to commit vis-i-vis other Jews; deeds unimaginable and incomprehensible in ordinary times.
We stayed only briefly at the railroad station. The old station house, once neatly painted and adorned with planted flowers, was a shambles and closed. This had once been the point of departure, and often the beginning of adventure for the people of our town. Now there were no people, no signs of activity, and like the rest of the town it lay dormant and deserted. Only freight trains leave from this station occasionally, I was told. Across the railroad where the wetlands used to be, the land had been drained forming a small lake. Here, the largest number of victims taken from our town during the Wild Action were tortured and forced to spend a day and a night shivering in the cold, before being loaded into cattle cars for their fatal journey to the Belzec extermination camp.
Returning to town from the station we passed more former Jewish houses. Among them: the Friedman house, the Gelbtuch, the Rosenzweig, Dr. Kron's, Dr. Halpern's, and a few others. Down the road and close to the towers stood the Wagner house. Now dilapidated and boarded up, it had been one of the biggest and loveliest in our town and stood near the Milgrom house, where the revered Rabbi from Osiatyn used to stay during his Shavuot holiday visits to our town. We made a stop at the Gmina, where during the German occupation Meyer Grinfeld had climbed through a window in order to steal documents to be forged into Aryan Papers. Another house, Dr. Kron's, was the seat of the Schupo, the headquarters of the feared German Security Police in our town.
The more prosperous people used to live along the main road known as Panska (Gentry) Street. Here were located some of the best homes and stores in town; among them the book, tobacco, candy and drug stores, as well as the homes and offices of a few of the town's lawyers, physicians and dentists. On Saturday afternoons, a segment of the Jewish population, bedecked in their finery, would promenade up and down this street and towards evening stop for candies or ice cream. Young couples and youth groups would pass along the street on their way to outings in the fields and meadows outside of town.
Further up Panska Street we passed landmarks familiar to us: the old schoolhouse, the Sokol - a sports and movie hall, the regional, administrative Starosta building and still further up, in opposite directions, the hospital and the former Jewish orphanage. Most of these places have associations for us, the survivors. Before the war, in one small house next to the hospital lived the Polish surgeon of our town, Dr. Strzalkowski. He often tended to the needs of the Jewish community. During the German occupation, for a fee, but nevertheless at a risk to himself, he performed forbidden surgery on Jews. This was often
done on his kitchen table, under difficult conditions and with a minimum of medical equipment. One such victim who was treated by him was my cousin, Tynka Guss nee' Rosenzweig, for whom he removed the bullet after she was shot in the head during one of the village 'actions.'
At the Jewish cemetery the tombstones had been removed, the ground leveled and cemented, long ago. On our last trip, we had seen the sports field which was built there and, therefore, knew what to expect. Yet, when I approached the cemetery area and heard the cheerful shouts and peals of laughter coming from young athletes playing over the bones of my father and all those buried there, it was more than I could bear. I stopped for a few minutes, said a silent prayer, and left.
From here we went to Nowosiolka and the stone quarry where the Skalat Camp Jews, hungry, terrified and exhausted, had spent their waking hours cutting and breaking up stones. The quarry was now mechanized and the stones were being obtained from a new section. One could still make out, however, the old part of the hill and the road through which Jews, under guard, walked every day on their way to forced labor. I saw this scene when I was hiding in the nearby fields after Skalat was declared Judenfrei. One day, tired, hungry, and having no place to hide, I began to approach the Jews working there in hope of going back to camp with them. Suddenly my stepfather, who worked at the quarry with the other Jews, spotted me from a distance. Climbing to a higher level of the quarry, he started to sing loudly in Yiddish while continuing to break up stones. Through the words of his song he was telling me that I couldn't go back to camp, that it was dangerous there, and that all was lost. He warned me not to dare come any closer or I would be shot. He instructed me to run from this place and try to save myself. I listened for more advice, but his song stopped. Terrified and abandoned, I did as I was told. I turned around and ran as fast as I could.
From the quarry we got into a waiting taxi, hired for the day. With us, besides the driver, was a local man from Skalat. During the German occupation he had been a teenager. He told me how he and his friends had watched the Jews being driven through the streets and into the killing field. He saw them walking with bent heads, four or five abreast with locked arms and leaning against each other for support. I knew from my previous visit to Skalat that the mounds of the mass graves had long since been leveled and plowed under. As we approached the area, the local man pointed out the field and our car came to a stop along the road. Stepping out of the car I beheld a lush, green field planted with sugar beets as far as the eye could see. Familiar red poppies dotted the landscape and on the horizon a row of tall, poplar trees were towering upwards. It seemed unnatural that this pastoral scene should be hiding, deep within its soil, the remnants of such unspeakable violence and death. To camouflage their crimes, the killers picked the execution spots least visible from the road. We started to walk. silently, into the sloping fields. Then, my husband stopped, picked a red poppy, placed it into my hand, and watched me descend further into the field.
When I reached the lowest point, I stopped and sank to the ground. At that instant I sensed the mass graves underneath me, blanketed with fields of green. I imagined that day over fifty years ago when I came so close to sharing with the others my eternity underneath this field. Was the day then just as ordinary as this one? Were the tall, lovely poplars the same mute witnesses? And the sky above, was it as clear and blue? Was He there on that day and on thousands of such days watching just as silently?
I try to imagine what went through the minds of the doomed as I close my eyes. I feel myself among them, standing next to a heap of clothing, I huddle among the undressed men, women and children Suddenly, a real shiver of terror comes over me. In my ears I hear orders being barked. People in rows of five or six are forced to run towards the freshly dug pits. There is shooting and another row of Jews runs up and then another. Now it is our turn, I'm running along side of my mother and my sister. We reach the abyss...the mind goes blank.
After that I could imagine nothing!
I am still clutching the red poppy in my hand, when I become aware of my surroundings again. I place the flower where I was sitting.
It is early evening as we leave. The taxi makes its way slowly along bumpy, old roads. Behind us we leave the dead, the unmarked graves, the pitiful remnants of what was once Jewish Skalat. I stare for the last time at the disappearing buildings. I seek words to give voice to my anguish, grope for expressions to convey the full measure of what befell us in this town. But I find none, and I leave as I came, in silence. The memories of those that I cannot take along and of what took place here, I take with me. I guard them carefully, to pass on to our children, grandchildren, and those who will come after them.
On the road outside of town I turn back deliberately to catch a final glimpse of the red tiled roofs of the old towers. Then, just as deliberately, I turn away and want to look back no more.
* cheders(s) -A Hebrew religious class for young boys.
I wish to express my gratitude to Abraham Weissbrod, who gave us this chronicle and told us what happened to the Jews of Skalat under the Nazi occupation. I also wish to thank my fellow survivors, an ever diminishing group of living witnesses, who contributed their testimonies in spite of the pain which these memories caused them. I'm especially glad that the voices of those who were children under the Nazi occupation of Skalat have now been heard. Their stories illustrate how deeply they had been seared by their childhood tragedies.
I am grateful to the following individuals for their help in editing the English text:
Adam Kanarek, a fellow survivor, for his sensitivity and ingenuity in helping to decipher unclear passages, abbreviations and foreign expressions, and for giving generously of his time;
Joseph Kofler, also a fellow survivor, for taping and reading the Yiddish text and for helping to compare it with the first version of the English translation;
Lewis Rosen. for making further valuable editorial suggestions; and
Lynda Pandolfo, for her patience and kindness in typing the English text.
I am indebted most of all to my husband, Bernard Milch. for his constant support. Having survived the Nazi occupation in Kozowa, Ukraine, only fifty miles from Skalat, he understood better than anyone and relived with me the stories told in this book. His love and that of our children, David Milch, Neal and Lesley Milch and our grandchildren. Cody and Julia, were the inspiration to undertake this effort and their encouragement helped to see it through to its completion.
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